Cinema

Indian Horror Returns: Beware the Ramsays

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The first family of Indian horror returns, this time with a web series

WE WAIT IN a small old-fashioned two- storied Bandra bungalow, repainted a bright yellow, which once perhaps served as a single house. Some members of the Ramsay family, Indian horror cinema’s once-famed family, were expected here a few hours ago. But they are yet to arrive. Outside, the day is being drained of its colour. Early evening is rapidly turning to night.

Suddenly, in this twilight hour, three figures emerge on the other side of the road holding large unlit candles. The figures walk to the edge of the curb, carefully waiting for the traffic to pass before they cross the street, like characters from a civic-conscious horror film. As they approach nearer, their dark faces behind unlit candles reveal themselves to be those of Shyam Ramsay, his daughter Saasha, and a lackey who with his handsome features perhaps harbours dreams of becoming an actor himself. Shyam is dressed in a dark shirt and trousers. Saasha, wearing her hair straight and loose, down her shoulders and to her waist, is dressed entirely in black. “These candles,” Shyam thrusts them towards us as though it is a bouquet of flowers and says, “They are for you. For the shoot.”

The photographer, though, has other ideas. Without the natural light of the day, she has dimmed the lights of a room inside to create an appropriate horror setting to shoot the filmmakers. Shyam, for a man who has spent all his professional life disfiguring faces, is particularly fastidious about his appearance. He tiptoes in the dark. And makes his lackey hold a mirror with one hand while shining a cellphone flashlight with another, he runs a pocket comb through his hair. Across the darkness, at the other end of the room, his daughter begins to work on her appearance like her father, but without a flashlight or a mirror. When one approaches Shyam for a chat, “Mein bolta hoon na. Tum kitna pakad sakte ho, pakdo.” (I’ll speak now. You try and catch how much you can.)

One might assume that the Ramsays— the seven-brother-troupe that created a string of low-cost but popular horror films from the 1970s to the 1990s—had disappeared after making the popular horror TV series The Zee Horror Show in the 1990s. But the brothers— sometimes all of them together or sometimes just one or two of them— continued to make horror films right through the turn of the century (Shyam Ramsay made his last film three years ago), all of them poorly-received and with limited releases. But the landscape of modern Bollywood— in its pursuit of slick and polished films to cater to the country’s globally-exposed multiplex audiences—had changed radically.

Now, after having once successfully turned to the new medium of cable television back in the early 1990s to revive their career, they turn to a newer medium once again. They are now online with a horror webseries called Phir Se Ramsay.

“Meet Saasha Ramsay,” Shyam says pointing to his daughter, who, in keeping with the funereal grimness of her attire, seems disinclined to smile, “She is the third generation of the Ramsay family. She is taking our legacy forward.”

The portal that hosts the show, 101 India, is a popular website that hosts a variety of webseries, from shows about what they call ‘counter culture groups’ like male belly dancers and a skate-boarding community in Madhya Pradesh to food shows with dons and encounter specialists. The managing director of the portal, Cyrus Oshidar, is a well-known name in TV and advertising circles. “We really wanted to do something with horror, to reintroduce an old form of Indian horror. When someone suggested the Ramsays, I said ‘Yes, we should do them’,” Oshidar says. “The idea is not to scare you or anything,” Oshidar continues, raising his hands to form imaginary claws in the air. “It is to tell youths who might not have grown up with these shows that this is part of a cultural legacy—the classical Indian horror.”

The way Tulsi Ramsay remembers it, his father Fatehchand Ramsingh owned a large electronics store in Karachi with “14 windows”, Ramsingh Radio and Electric Company, where he sold the latest radio transistors. But his clients, most of them British officers and their families, struggled with the name of the shop, at best managing to pronounce ‘Ramsingh’ as ‘Ramsay’. When the family moved to Bombay during Partition and set up a radio transistor shop in Lamington Road, and later entered film production, this new name ‘Ramsay’ travelled with them too. And the seven sons—Kumar, Keshu, Tulsi, Kiran, Shyam, Gangu and Arjun—came to be known as the Ramsay brothers.

Fatehchand Ramsingh produced several films, from Shaheed-E-Azam Bhagat Singh (1954), India’s first film, as Tulsi reminds us, on the martyr, to Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi (1970), which featured a large cast of top actors like the Kapoor patriarch, Prithviraj Kapoor, Shatrughan Sinha and Mumtaz.

All his films did moderate business. But the last of them, Ek Nanhi Munni Ladki Thi, was such a spectacular failure that Fatehchand not only lost a lot of money, he also lost the heart to make another film. “He was heartbroken and he didn’t want to do another film,” Tulsi remembers.

By then Tulsi had dropped out of St Xavier’s College in Mumbai to run a textile shop. Bollywood films in those times, as Tulsi remembers, used to take several years to complete. Shooting happened in bits and pieces only for a few weeks and would halt for several months until the producers raised funds for the next leg of production. The brothers would take leave from their jobs and studies to assist their father .

As the father locked himself up in his house convalescing from a broken heart, the brothers, unable to take the stifling environment of failure, would walk to the neighbouring theatre, Minerva Cinema, every evening to catch the failure unfold for free. “Apni picture thhi. Ticket ka paisa kyon dein? (It was our film. Why should we have paid for tickets?)” Tulsi says. The theatre would be filled every night with just 10 or 20 viewers who would be half-asleep. But every night, the brothers noticed, Tulsi says, that at one point in the film, the bodies of the sleepy and sluggish audience members, would suddenly stir. The scene involved a heist sequence, where the statuesque Prithviraj Kapoor, disguised in a dark costume with a cape, enters a museum to steal from it. When the police would shoot at him, the bullets would bounce off his body. “He was so hideous and scary-looking in that part. The public would scream and jump,” Tulsi says. By then, Tulsi was already a big fan of American and European horror films. “We brothers began to think, ‘Why don’t we expand the elements of that short sequence? Why don’t we make an entire horror film instead?’”

THE SEVEN BROTHERS managed to convince their father to fund their venture. But this time, they agreed, they were going to do things differently. They were going to keep costs low. They were not going to hire stars and they were not going to recruit outsiders to make and direct the film. The brothers were going to do everything. Shyam and Tulsi Ramsay would direct, Gangu, who was interested in photography, would handle the camera, Kiran, who was interested in music, would handle the sound department, Arjun would edit, and Kiran, the most educated of them, would write the script. The brothers read a book on film production, they made a small film as trial, and put together a cast of unknown characters. The family and cast got into a bus to head to the neighbouring town of Mahabaleshwar, where the wintry nights and deep woods would provide an ideal location for a horror film. The brothers would shoot during the day and night, while their mother cooked for them and the crew in the guesthouse. “It was really like a picnic for all of us,” Shyam remembers.

The film, Do Gaz Zameen Ke Neeche (1972), which cost a pittance and was completed before schedule, made the family a lot of money. “There had been Bollywood films with a horror sequence here and there in the past. But this was India’s first legitimate all-out horror film,” Shyam says.

In the next few decades, the Ramsay brothers averaged at least one horror film every year, sometimes as many as two or three in a single year. Bollywood was changing drastically by then. Films were becoming more expensive to make. Sholay (1975), then perhaps the most expensive film of its time, is said to have been made on a budget of a few crores. Songs were being shot in hill stations and exotic locations. And the likes of Amitabh Bachchan had begun to emerge, creating an entirely new type of Bollywood formula. The Ramsay brothers lay at the other end of the spectrum, perhaps outside it completely, making films with unknown faces and tacky visuals, creating their own formula of sex and horror. According to Tulsi, during this period, the more well- known families and stars in the film industry would often laugh about their films, but because of their success, often kept an eye on their projects.

The seven brothers, as Shyam remembers it, shared two rooms in an apartment. They would challenge each other to tell new horror stories all night long, and include their discussions into a film script by the day. A bevy of actors, respectable and semi-respectable, depending on the moment in their career, made their way in and out of a Ramsay film. Many of the regular 1980s and 90s actors—Shakti Kapoor, Gulshan Grover, Satish Shah, Mohnish Bahl, even Irrfan Khan—often featured in a Ramsay Brothers’ production. In one of their biggest hits, Purana Mandir (1984), their star turned out to be a seven-foot monster, an actor named Ajay, who later played the monster in several of Ramsay Brothers’ films. “He came to me wanting to be a hero,” Shyam says. “I had to convince him to become the monster. I told him in our films, the ghost gets more screen time than the hero.”

The brothers would market their films on the radio, offering money to people brave enough to watch their film alone. Shyam recalls, “We would say, ‘Shut your doors, close your window…’ And then we would cue in the sound of a heroine screaming. And say, ‘A Ramsay Brothers’ picture is coming out tonight’.” One of their films caused a man to die of a cardiac arrest, Shyam claims. And while filming a scene one night in a jungle, they say they once accidently dug up a body. (“We just said a few prayers and dug the body back in,” Shyam says.) Saasha, who as a child would often travel with her father on shoots and later assisted him on The Zee Horror Show and some films, recalls growing up in a house filled with scary masks and prosthetics. “Most of my friends’ fathers did a nine-to-five job. I would tell everyone my dad does a six-to-six (am) job.”

The Ramsay Brothers’ films had everything. There were exophthalmic witches, monsters with scrofulous cheeks and scarred foreheads, and human heads that would either explode or appear disembodied in refrigerators. And like good horror filmmakers, they didn’t just rely on gore. Women with milky white skin would often find themselves in a shower, bosoms would perennially emerge from swimming pools, and village belles would roll about on haystacks for no particular reason. “People complain about the censor board now. I faced much more back then,” Tulsi says. For their first film, Tulsi recounts, with unusual relish for a 70-year-old, how he spent almost an entire night filming a sequence where an actor just kisses the actress. “I would find my father watching that scene again and again at home,” he says. Several minutes of that scene were edited out, but what was released always elicited hoots from the crowd.

Of the seven brothers, two have already died. Kiran passed away more than a year ago from a liver-related ailment. Tulsi recounts with some bitterness how the other brothers weren’t informed of his poor health. Professionally, the brothers had already split long before. Two amongst them had moved out of horror films in the 1990s to find some success producing action films with Akshay Kumar. After the remaining brothers finished up with their TV series and could not find the same success with their later films, most of them quit. Only Shyam continues to work, now with his daughter. While Tulsi, like always, hopes to return to making horror films.

“Do you think ghosts exist?” Tulsi asks, without displaying much interest in my opinion. “I think they do. If there is light, there is also darkness,” he says. Tulsi has a limp and a lopsided stance, somewhat like a jammed accordion. Beside him is an old fashioned briefcase that contains articles about the brothers from magazines and newspapers, many of them which have long since been discontinued. He spends his day in the house or watching films alone in a nearby theatre. He has stopped entertaining old acquaintances. Occasionally, a fan will seek him out. He tells me of a horror he has finished shooting, about his plan to start new projects, and of doing a horror Marathi film (“We will take Nana Patekar. He is not doing any work anyway.” “We will take Riteish Deshmukh. He is a big name in Marathi films.”).

He takes me around his house, mentioning the several Bollyood celebrities who own houses in this housing society, from Kangana Ranaut and Akshay Kumar’s mother to producers like Vipul Shah. We walk to a balcony, from which we can see, he says, young TV actors and actresses. When he spots only children and their nannies, dressed in nightdresses and pyjamas, as though sleepwalking in a daytime garden, the old man seems confused and genuinely distressed.

Elsewhere during the photoshoot of Shyam and his daughter, when the photographer introduces the concept of a darkened room, Shyam does not want to have any of that. He instead gets people to take out their cellphones and shine their flashlights on his face. He grabs flagging arms whenever the illumination wavers. And, towards the end of the exercise, when the photographer suggests some “Ramsay lighting” — several lights from below to cast a shadow on their faces, like he has done to so many of his monsters, Shyam flatly refuses.

“Please,” he says, “horror mat karo” (Don’t do horror).”

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